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Nicholas Tolkien Brings His Holocaust Play TEREZIN to Playwrights Horizons

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TEREZIN, a tragic play written and directed by Nicholas Tolkien, the great-grandson of J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote THE LORD OF THE RINGS series, is currently being produced by The Steinberg Theater Group at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

During World War II, Terezin was a concentration camp in the Czech Republic that the Nazis depicted as a "model community for middle-class Jews" to try to convince the world that Jews were being well-treated. Nevertheless, many people were murdered or died of malnutrition there. Tolkien based his play on "The Terezin Diary of Gonda Redlich" and survivor accounts that he obtained through interviews.

Tolkien wastes no time in getting to the harrowing nature of his subject matter. In the opening scene, Nazis murder the parents of a young girl named Violet right in front of her eyes, and she is then taken to Terezin. The problem is that the actress is probably in her early 20s, but the character, who carries around a teddy bear, may be no more than seven or eight years old. It's unclear, but I was unable to get past this discrepancy as the play progressed.

When Violet is stolen from the camp by someone who wants to care for her properly, her friend Alexi is desperately worried. Meanwhile, the commandant of the camp always wanted to be a violinist and had seen Alexi's mother in concert. His intent in bringing the family to the camp was to have the famous Jewish violinist give him lessons, but she dies almost immediately after her transport there.

Eventually, he discovers that Alexi is an even better violinist than her mother and forces her to give him lessons in exchange for being told what happened to Violet. Except the commandant has no idea what happened to the girl.

The tragic story of the people at Terezin is certainly a worthwhile subject, and Tolkien's play has merit. However, it needs further development. The staging is somewhat stylized, which only distanced me from creating an emotional connection with the characters.

Violins are portrayed using scarves extended the length of the actor's arm. Rather than use the other hand to mime the use of a bow, the actors extend their hand down the length of the scarf while a recording plays. This is expressive, but brings attention to itself.

Another device involves using shadows behind a curtain to loosely portray a propaganda film about the camp. This is more effective, as the actors' hands press against the curtain to show their desperation and horror.

Least effective is the use of actors playing ghosts at various times throughout the play. In the second act, a young girl plays a ghost who haunts her father. I understand why she holds onto his leg as a symbol of the weight of his grief, but I don't understand why she also torments Violet, who never knew the girl. If the ghosts simply stood still and stared in the vicinity of the action, it might have an even greater emotional impact.

For the most part, the actors do a good job with the material given and with their difficult accents, particularly Natasa Petrovic as Alexi, Sam Gibbs as Kurt Markowitz, Michael Leigh Cook as the histrionic and narcissistic Commandant, and Blake Lewis as an especially sadistic Nazi. Rather than make the obvious choice of playing his character as loud and always menacing, Lewis made the smarter choice of having the character relish his sadism. This made the performance dimensional and all the more chilling.

The final performance of TEREZIN is at the Peter Jay Sharp Theatre on Tuesday, July 20, 2017 at 7pm.

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